Reauthorization of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 has been stalled since 2015. Even though the Senate Agriculture Committee and the House Education and the Workforce Committee reported their respective bills, the Improving Child Nutrition Integrity and Access Act of 2016 (S. 3136) and the Improving Child Nutrition and Education Act of 2016 (H.R. 5003), neither was acted upon by the full House and Senate. Instead, these programs were extended as part of the FY2016 omnibus appropriations law.
Since that time many school food authorities, food producers, and food companies that provide foods for the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs have been wondering when Congress will take up reauthorization of these programs. The Senate Agriculture Committee had its focus on the Farm Bill in the 115th Congress and did not resume work on child nutrition programs. The House was divided over block grants. But there are signals that this Congress may take up reauthorization, even though no specific schedule has been announced.
The House Committee on Education and Labor (the name has changed back from Education and the Workforce) held a hearing on March 12 entitled “Growing a Healthy Next Generation: Examining Federal Child Nutrition Programs.“ The President’s FY 2020 budget proposal for USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service lists several legislative changes in these programs that the Administration would like to see. Members are beginning to introduce bills that will impact these programs. The legislative process is in its early stages but bears watching.
For school food authorities, nutrition standards will be a key focus. As the March 12 hearing revealed, some of these authorities believe that the meal standards issued in 2011 are too demanding and that relief is needed, especially in rural areas. Prior appropriations bills led to the revisions in regulations issued last year, delaying further reductions in sodium levels and waiving the whole grain requirements. And efforts have also been made to increase the availability of flavored whole milk in these programs. Other school food authorities believe that they have made important strides in improving the quality of school meals and say that students are accepting these changes. They argue that a reduction in these standards is a step backward.
Even though the change in House majorities makes it less likely that there will be a push for block grants in these programs as had been the case in 2015-2016, there were still questions at the House hearing suggesting some members are considering block grants. Members wondered if it would be better if funding was just given to states and the states were left to determine what the standards should be for school meal programs. That question was met with a “no” by at least one witness saying that could result in different standards across different states which would make it costly for manufacturers to comply with differing standards. Nutrition labeling and Dietary Guidelines are uniform across the country.
Add to this mix the fact that the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee has been named and will hold its first meeting on March 28 and 29th. The Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act requires the Secretary of Agriculture to “issue guidance to States and school food authorities to increase the consumption of foods and food ingredients that are recommended for increased serving consumption in the most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans.” The new guidelines will likely have an impact on school meal standards once they are released.
Also keep in mind that the next edition of the Dietary Guidelines will, for the first time, set guidelines for children from birth to age 24 months. That information could well have an impact on the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).
The president’s budget includes several legislative proposals that will impact these programs. Those include: raising the Farm to School Grant limit from $100,000 to $500,000; increase the school meal verification sample size from 3 to 8 percent for many school food authorities; restrict community eligibility (CEP) to only those schools with an identified student percentage of at least 40 percent, even if participating in a group or district-wide election; and de-link Section 32 program funding from customs receipts. While the House and Senate Appropriations Committees are not likely to act on these proposals, they do suggest what recommendations the Administration is likely to make as child nutrition reauthorization moves forward.
Newly introduced bills on school milk availability and ensuring that "Buy American" requirements are met are the first of what will likely be several new and reintroduced legislative proposals.
So, the Farm Bill is done. Now it’s on to Child Nutrition Reauthorization, hopefully.
Roger Szemraj and Marshall Matz are partners at OFW Law, with years of experience crafting WIC and child nutrition legislation.